News, media & communications

Explaining Susan Boyle

If a futurist had looked into a crystal ball in the year 1979 and predicted that by 2010 the biggest selling pop star in the world would be a middle-aged Scottish spinster singing cover songs, notably show tunes, nobody would have taken much notice. However, Susan Boyle (SuBo) is now one of the biggest selling acts of all time. Her album entered the UK charts at number one and became the biggest selling UK album of 2009. It was also the best selling album ever on in terms of pre-sales, although only 6% of her album sales were downloads. Why?

The reason for SuBo’s success is a tale of our times. She is, as one writer put it recently, ‘the show business personification of Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope and her success is the result of the confluence of a number of media and technology trends. The first trend is the amateur as TV star. Reality has colonised mainstream TV. The second trend is the democratisation of media through the internet. Boyle’s audition on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent in April 2009 was seen more than 310 million times on YouTube and other websites.

The third trend (more of an anti-elitist idea really) is that everyone has an innate talent. But even this list of trends doesn’t quite explain her, certainly not if you’ve listened to the album, which, if it were a colour, would be beige. No. The main reason for Susan Boyle’s meteoric rise is the disconnect between her appearance and her voice. She is the real deal in the sense that she is indeed totally authentic. Her voice is polished but everything else is raw. Moreover, she appeals to an ageing society largely left out in the cold by a youth-obsessed music industry (hence her lack of album downloads). But she is a cultural dead end. She is a one-off but she doesn’t do anything original. As Neil McCormick, writing recently in the Telegraph newspaper put it: ‘Boyle is a thoroughly modern diva, an icon of utter irrelevance’.

Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK), 20-26 January 2010, ‘How Susan Boyle conquered the planet’, N. McCormick.
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Search words: Susan Boyle, real, reality, authenticity, raw, anti-elitism
Trend tags: Ageing, connectivity, digitalisation

The Future of Photography (look out, the pixel police are coming)

When people think about the future of photography it is usually in terms of digitalisation. But there is another, connected, aspect that needs to be considered. In Britain, the most spied-on nation on earth, (current CCTV count circa 4.2 million cameras and rising) it is becoming increasingly difficult for members of the public to freely take photographs in public spaces. In some instances it is actually illegal, thanks in part to the Terrorism Act of 2000, section 44. The Act states that the police have the power to stop and search anyone attempting to photograph certain ‘designated areas’. What are these designated areas? Well that’s the clever bit, the government won’t tell you. Suffice to say that large areas of central London, including all major railway stations, are now off limits. And that’s not all. Photographing children is also becoming difficult, even when the children belong to the person taking the photograph. For example, most schools will now ask you to seek permission before using a camera on school property, while some nursery schools will ask all parents to sign a release form before anyone can photograph their child at any kind of school event. If one parent refuses to sign nobody is allowed to take photographs. Similar restrictions are in place in public swimming pools, shopping malls and parks.

Are we losing sight of common sense here? The first law is designed to deal with terrorism but it is being interpreted so widely that we are in danger of destroying personal memory and public history. Indeed, many of the greatest reportage and street photographs would not be possible nowadays and we risk destroying family photograph albums as well. As for taking photographs in other public places, the issue is related to local council overreaction to the threat of paedophilia and the emerging view that anyone with a digital camera is up to no good. This is partly due to the ease with which images can now be circulated and partly due to the fact that taking photographs no longer involves the informal policing that went along with getting your pictures developed at the local chemist.

But the key point is that little, if any, of this has anything to do with photography. What is developing is a change in the way that individuals relate to one another. We are increasingly losing the ability to negotiate with strangers and this is breeding a society that is becoming paranoid. Moreover, it is indicative of how the state views its citizens. Governments are hiding behind a precautionary principle while pushing for greater legal control. And don’t expect the law to help ordinary citizens anytime soon either. Celebrities are pushing for laws that allow them to hide behind privacy arguments when it suits them but they court the full force of the paparazzi when it doesn’t.

Ref: The Times (UK), 7 March 2010, ‘The Shooting Party’s Over’, R. Woods.
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Search words: Photography
Trend tags: Privacy, digitalisation, anxiety, risk

A business in search of a business model

A nice summary of the future of reading was published in Fortune magazine recently. As we all know, print media is supposed to be dying. For example, the number of ad pages in US magazines and newspapers fell by 26% in 2009. Then again, according to the Magazine Publishers Association (US), paid magazine subscriptions have been rising for quite some time and hit 324 million subscriptions in 2008. What does this say? You can find all kinds of data about print media and interpret it in various ways but the bottom line seems to be this: Print media is in trouble because its business models no longer work in the digital era. However, people still have a need for curated or packaged collections of information, especially specialist interest information that is delivered directly to them. Moreover, as the media universe expands (more creators therefore more content) the need for trusted information sifters will go up not down. In other words, there’s a business model in the middle of this muddle somewhere.

But what about he iPad and other portable devices? Surely people (and younger people in particular) want information that is ‘instant, sortable, searchable, savable and portable’? True. But that’s only one (declining) demographic and it’s also only one customer need. People use the web to quickly scan for surface information but there is also a need for deeper reading experiences that deliver deeper understanding. As for Apple’s iPad, I’m sure that it will be a huge success, primarily because it looks cool and makes old-media formats like magazines and books interactive. You can expect full-page glossy ads to start appearing on online editions of magazines soon and the sheer convenience of various media applications will mean that while people could steal content from the web for nothing via such devices they mostly won’t. So, to sum up, there are no such things as dying industries, only old industries waiting to be re-modelled and re-invented.

Ref: Fortune (US), 1 March 2010, ‘The Future of Reading’, J. Quittner, See also: The Economist (UK), 27 February 2010, ‘Boom in Printing on Demand: Just press print’. Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 26 October 2009, ‘It’s a digital eats publishers world’, K. Takahashi & T. Igarashi.
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Search words: Magazines, iPad, e-readers, online news, reading
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A tale of two newspaper markets

It’s been said that the future usually arrives unevenly and the Japanese and American newspaper markets might be a case in point. In Japan – home to many of the world’s largest selling daily newspapers – things are in decline but a mixture of ritual, tradition and unique distribution channels means that the decline is slow. For example, Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second biggest selling daily, has 2,600 distribution points employing around 70,000 people. As a result, over 90% of Japanese newspapers are still delivered to people’s homes. Another reason that things aren’t too bad is demographics. Japan’s population is ageing and older people still read physical newspapers. According to one survey by the Japan Newspaper Publishers Association, 86% of individuals aged 60+ read a daily paper, compared to 54% of 30-40 somethings and 34% of 20-30 year-olds. It’s not all good news though. The Sankei Shimbun newspaper, Japan’s fifth largest daily, recently lost 15% of its circulation in just six months because it made its content freely available through an iPhone application.

The US has a slightly different story. Most small metropolitan newspapers are in big trouble. Thanks largely to the internet, classified advertising has moved online and display ads have suffered a decline thanks to the recent GFC. But there are other reasons too. You can blame everything on the internet, but the internet also represents something about ourselves and the way in which society is changing. Many people no longer want to live in small towns or cities. They want to be global cyber citizens, freed from local narrative or responsibilities. But an implication of this is that we are destroying our sense of place, our sense of local community and, as the writer Richard Rodriguz explains in Harper’s magazine: ‘the structure of intellectual property and all critical appararatus’.

Another of Rodriguez’s comments strikes a chord with me. What I am starting to see is a swing away from the digital towards the real and he is seeing too. Note this passage, for example: ‘Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-its and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons … they want a nineteenth century bookshop … they want five-star bricks and mortar and DO NOT DISTURB signs and views of the park’.

Ref: Harper’s (US), November 2009, ‘Final edition: Twilight of the American newspaper’, R. Rodriguez., Financial Times (UK), 28-29 November 2009, ‘Japan’s newspapers hold grip on sales’, R. Harding.
The Australian (Aus), 14 December 2009, ‘Omens from the shrinking Japanese newspaper business’, P. Alford. www.
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Search words: Newspapers, news, community, place
Trend tags: Digitalisation, flight to the physical

Google news

Are you a Gmail user? If so you might have been rather surprised a while ago when something showed up in your inbox. Some people got an invitation to try something called Buzz. Sounds innocent enough but if you clicked on a link to get further information you were told that you were ‘following’ a number of people (possibly your doctor, your divorce lawyer etc) and that a number of people were ‘following’ you. Spam? No. Just another service from Google, albeit one you probably didn’t ask for. This is but one example of how Google is using its power in one market to break into others – in this case social networking. To some extent these things run in cycles. It was IBM that everyone hated a few decades ago and it has been Microsoft’s turn more recently. Google is a fantastic company run by some very smart people and it isn't really their fault if they end up creating a monopoly by accident.

Not everyone thinks this way, of course. In Europe three companies have complaints against Google in front of the European Commission, claiming unfair competition or objectivity and critics within the newspaper industry argue that what ‘free content’ really means is that Google gets all the money – hence the moves by newspaper publishers to erect pay walls and start charging for their online content. In other words, there seems to be a growing sense of unease about Google’s dominant position, much of it related to questions about the ownership of information. Another example in book publishing circles is the argument that Google Book Search effectively represents the privatisation – and in time the monetisation – of public libraries.

History would suggest that one form of media rarely displaces another entirely so it seems unlikely that digitalisation (and hence Googlisation) will ever be 100% but expect the sense of unease to grow.

Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 20-21 February 2010, ‘Anti-social networking’, R. Waters. See also The Financial Times (UK) 27-28 February 2010, 'Is Google a monopoily' by C. Caldwell and 'Google taken to task over it's objectivity' by R. Waters (same issue). Also see, The Australian (Aus), 2-3 January 2010, ‘World’s greatest title fight’, L. Slattery. Sunday Times (UK), 6 December 2009, ‘Will papers’ pay walls topple the web’s freedom to pillage news?’, D. Rushe.
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Search words: Google, privacy, information, monopolies, competition
Trend tags: Privacy